Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #53: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

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Now begins the rapid dash to get myself caught back up with reviews. Were it not for my interest in The Night Eternal starting to lag, chances are I’d be wrapping up reading that and moving onto the next one in line, not trying to make a dent in my review backlog which includes a total of 13 books as of this moment. I guess, then, I can’t be too angry with Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan for face-planting two consecutive times after a gripping first installment. I’ve been in dire need of a breather, yet couldn’t bring myself to take one. Thankfully, the two of them came along and forced me into it.

As my backlog is in the double digits, these may be out of order, but I hardly think that matters. It sets off some alarm bells in my head, since I prefer everything to be neat and orderly. However, if I can handle my movie log not being 100% accurate on account of letting it grow wildly outdated as well, I should be able to put up with a book or two being accidentally swapped places. So I begin with Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, a novel that seemed, to me, patently confused. At first, it aims to tell the stories of Nao’s grandmother, Jiko. Or so Nao’s journal, washed up on the other side of the Pacific and discovered by Ruth, says. The further in I got, however, the more apparent it became that I’d been misled. Jiko was more tertiary character than focal point in a story that felt altogether lacking in a unified purpose.

Were it limited to Nao’s journal entries, thus allowing her to take center stage, reading it wouldn’t have been so frustrating an exercise. Except Ozeki pads out the story with the help of Ruth, the reader (and apparent transcriber) of those same entries. Ruth finds herself so enveloped in them that her own life, especially her marriage, takes a backseat. Not that that’s necessarily an undesirable effect; her and her husband are two of the driest characters I’ve had the misfortune of being introduced to all year long.

Each of her sections is filled out with countless micro-lessons in history, as well as other subjects, that didn’t intrigue me in the slightest. Her husband, in particular, drew my ire every time he spoke up with another of his dull factoids. I cared little about her involvement and wanted instead to return to Nao. Nao, whose style of writing is, in actuality, better suited to standing on its own. She addresses the eventual reader of her journal directly, and I’d rather feel as if I were the one who’d stumbled across it, not another woman who has no life or her own and, due to that, lives almost vicariously through Nao, who adds more excitement to her life than she’s probably ever experienced.

Maybe handling her story that way would’ve lessened my eventual disappointment upon learning it was more Nao’s story than Jiko’s, that this was all introductory material to a greater story we, and Ruth, will never hear told. I wouldn’t have liked it, even in that case, but it would’ve been a noticeable improvement. My frustrations wouldn’t have had as much time to blossom into a full-blown rage at Ozeki, the consummate tease. Or perhaps, without Ruth to balance things out, Nao would’ve struck me as even more irksome than she already did. There exists no simple solution for A Tale for the Time Being’s problems, so I doubt it would make that big a difference either way. So, instead, I’ll just hold out hope for a follow-up in which Jiko’s stories are finally told. It would surely be an improvement over this.

 

Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.

 

Lady Cordelia #CBR5 Review #43: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

imagesThis is the second novel by Ruth Ozeki I have read this year, and I was completely blown away.  This book is so much more than a story, and my brain is still trying to process it.  On the surface it’s all rather simple: Ruth lives in a small island community on the west coast of Canada.  A few months after the 2011 Japanese tsunami, she finds a sealed package washed up on the beach: a Hello Kitty lunchbox containing a diary written in Japanese, an old watch and a stack of letters written in French.  Being part Japanese, Ruth can read the diary.  It was written by a 16-year-old girl in Tokyo, Nao.  Nao started the diary in 2006 to tell the life story of her great-grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist nun.  Nao intends to complete this story and then commit suicide.

The three stories: Ruth reading the diary, Nao writing about her great grandmother, and Nao’s own story at the time of her writing become interwoven.  Nao has written the diary in order that it will someday be read by someone – a “time being”.  The idea that all the stories are shared and linked as if they are happening simultaneously, rather than at three distinct points is overwhelming at times.  Like Ruth, I was completely caught up with Nao’s own story and was desperate to find out where she was “now” and to save her.  The whole concept of things happening simultaneously in time rather than sequentially and chronologically is beautifully explored and at times I honestly felt quite disorientated.  But how wonderful that a book could so gently lead me into that feeling!

I think this book is going to be a keeper and deserving of another read, where I can mark pages that I want to come back to and consider at length, rather than racing through it in order to find out what happens.  I highly recommend this book, no matter whether you want to read it just at the story level or perhaps go deeper.

Lady Cordelia #CBR5 Review #29: My Year of Meats by Ruth L. Ozeki

imagesI borrowed My Year of Meats from the library after being wait-listed for the newly published A Tale for the Time Being, and so really had no preconceptions about this book whatsoever.  The story is in two parts: in the US, Jane Takagi-Little is a documentary filmmaker who has been hired to make a series promoting the American meat industry to Japanese consumers; in Japan, Akiko Ueno faithfully watches the television series and makes the “meat of the week” dish for her abusive husband each week.  The lives of these two women change through their experience of making and watching the show, and slowly become entwined.

The story does delve into the current practices of meat farming, particularly beef.  I must confess that I was so caught up in the story of the two women, that I didn’t at first see where the story was heading, though looking back now, it seems easily apparent.  Potential readers should not be concerned that they will be bludgeoned by some kind of vegetarian agenda, but there is some seriously disturbing information here about modern farming that some people might prefer not to know.  As Jane Takagi-Little puts it:

I would like to think my “ignorance” less as a personal failing and more as a massive cultural trend, an example of doubling, of psychic numbing, that characterizes the end of the millennium.  If we can’t act on knowledge, then we can’t survive without ignorance.  So we cultivate the ignorance, go to great lengths to celebrate it, even…. We are paralysed by bad knowledge, from which the only escape is playing dumb.  Ignorance becomes empowering because it enables people to live. 

I thought this book was magical.  Beautifully written and tightly plotted, I was completely swept away.